Students take on City and province

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Queen’s students are fighting back against City Council after its members voted in favour of a bylaw which will realign the city’s electoral districts.

The Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS) has teamed up with the AMS and the Sydenham District Association (SDA) to file an appeal with the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) and the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) against the bylaw, which excludes students in the city’s census data.

The groups are currently seeking legal counsel before putting forward their OMB appeal, due 45 days after the bylaw was passed 7-6 on April 23. They’ve yet to determine whether they plan to file an appeal with the OHRC at the same time or after their OMB appeal, SGPS President Iain Reeve said.

The bylaw proposes the dissolution of Sydenham District, which is where Queen’s campus and surrounding area is situated, into Williamsville district west of Barrie St. and King’s Town district east of Princess St.

According to data presented at Council last month, most students are currently represented by four city councillors in the Sydenham, Williamsville, Portsmouth and King’s Town districts. The newly drawn districts will see a decrease in the number of councillors representing these students from four to three, out of a total of 13.

“The excuse that students shouldn’t be counted because they’re only temporary residents and only here for part of the year also applies to other people living in Kingston, and so to focus specifically on students makes it a form of discrimination based on some identifiable status,” Reeve said.

Unless the OMB amends or repeals the bylaw following a hearing, the district realignment will take effect for the 2014 municipal election. Currently, only two out of fourteen Ontario cities with similar demographics account for students in their census data.

“In my mind [Queen’s] students shouldn’t be the exception, because I think that should be the practice in all cities in all towns,” Reeve added. “If we can show to the province as well that this is a potentially discriminatory or problematic issue maybe provincial legislation could change, which would mean not just change for Queen’s and Kingston but for other university towns in Ontario.”

Arguments presented at Council in support of the bylaw argued that students living off-campus couldn’t be accounted for. Councillors also argued that students weren’t engaged in municipal affairs.

“Suddenly if we gave a vote to everyone who stayed in a hotel room the night of the election, we don’t know where to stop it,” councillor Jeff Scott told the Journal. “If these people aren’t considering themselves Kingstonians, how could they possibly have a say if a million dollars of tax dollars are going to be spent?”

Scott, who represents the Countryside district, voted in support of the bylaw. He said that the City held four public meetings regarding the proposal prior to its final vote last month, which the AMS and SGPS didn’t attend.

“If the AMS really had cared, they should have been there,” he said. “It showed an unbelievable lack of engagement and understanding.”

Bill Glover, Sydenham district councillor, told the Journal that Council’s decision was “fundamentally wrong.”

“It ignores an identifiable portion of the electorate [and] … it ignores Sydenham district, which is a community of interest.”

He added that Council was presented with a method of accounting for students living off-campus that could be factored into census data, but councillors chose to ignore it.

“Let’s work with the various bodies, particularly Queen’s, to try and find the tool,” he said. “Staff have said we have got a mechanism for counting students, we can place some reliability in it, why don’t we do it?”

He added that he will support the appeal put forward by the SGPS, AMS and SDA, and will make plans to run as councillor for “the Sydenham district that’s reinstated with the OMB” in the next election.

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